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Education

San Antonio Teacher Groups Say Coming To Campus To Teach Virtually Puts Them At Risk

North East Education Association vice president Laura Riggs speaks at a car caravan protest against teacher returning to schools during th COVID-19 pandemic.
Camillie Phillips | Texas Public Radio
North East Education Association vice president Laura Riggs speaks at a car caravan protest against teacher returning to schools during th COVID-19 pandemic.

When San Antonio teachers took to the streets (and their cars) on Monday to protest against reopening schools before the coronavirus pandemic is contained, another concern was also high on their list: a requirement that teachers return to their campuses to teach during distance learning.

Local teacher unions from San Antonio’s three largest school districts organized a car caravan from the San Antonio Independent School District up to North East and Northside as part of a national day of protest for safe school reopening. All three districts are requiring teachers to report to their campuses during remote learning.

Outside North East ISD’s central office, North East Education Association vice-president Laura Riggs said she was very concerned about 80 plus people reporting to her middle school to work every day “using common restrooms, common work areas, common doorways to enter.”

“You can't expect teachers in 100 degree heat to walk halfway around the building at a high school that's this size, to find a door that's a little bit more remote than other doors. It's just not practical,” Riggs said. “We can't do our job from a hospital bed, and we sure can't do it if we're dead.”

In addition to teaching 6th grade social studies, Riggs coaches basketball, track and soccer. She said coaches share small offices that make it hard to social distance.

“I am almost 56. I have a heart condition. I have an autoimmune disease. I have high blood pressure. It is not safe for me,” Riggs said. “I will show up if they tell me to, because I like what I do and I need a paycheck. But I'm not willing to die for that paycheck, and that's what they're asking us to do.”

A car at the North East ISD caravan on Aug. 3, 2020. Teachers protested against plans requiring them to return to classrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Credit Camille Phillips | Texas Public Radio
A car at the North East ISD caravan on Aug. 3, 2020. Teachers protested against plans requiring them to return to classrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to North East ISD spokeswoman Aubrey Chancellor, teachers with health conditions can work through human resources to get an exemption to the requirement that teachers teach from their classrooms during remote learning.

Chancellor said her district wants teachers to be in the classroom so that they can teach “without distractions that can typically happen at home” and so they can have access to tech support.

“There are multiple entrances at all of our buildings, so it could very well be that our teachers have little to no interaction with anyone else during the work day,” Chancellor said, adding that meetings will still be done through Zoom, so teachers aren’t in the same room.

Northside and SAISD also pointed to access to resources and the potential for distractions at home as the reason they are requiring teachers to work on campus during distance learning.

SAISD spokeswoman Leslie Price said her district also wants teachers to report to the classroom ahead of time to make sure safety protocols are ironed out before students return.

"We are bringing back our teachers in a phased approach – starting first with volunteers," with all teachers required to return to campus by Sept. 8 at the latest, Price said in an email. "It’s important that all adults on campuses are well-oriented with the new safety protocols and routines so we can support students when they begin entering this new environment."

San Antonio Alliance, which represents teachers and support personnel at SAISD, called the requirement “micromanagement.”

“Our educators have committed their lives to the service of working class communities of color across San Antonio, and have proven their commitment to this mission. They do not need to be micromanaged, and there is no reason to require them to report to district buildings to carry out instruction,” the Alliance said in a statement released last week.

“The presence of so many workers at district campuses presents a very real threat to human life. The increased traffic in our schools and the higher numbers of workers present at a campus greatly increases the likelihood of SAISD workers contracting COVID-19, infecting their coworkers, and taking the deadly disease home to their families. For our front-line workers, who have been required to report to campus since the start of the pandemic, this increased presence puts them at even greater risk.”

Like North East, Northside and SAISD officials said teachers with health conditions could work with HR to get permission to work from home during virtual learning. All three districts are also allowing teachers to bring their school-aged children with them to work under the supervision of paraprofessionals or other adults.

All three districts are currently planning to stay remote at least until Labor Day. Decisions to stay remote longer are in flux, after state officials revoked earlier guidance that promised state funding for closures ordered by local health authorities.

SA Metro Health, the Bexar County Health Authority, has placed all k-12 schools under a closure order through Sept. 7. But after Attorney General Ken Paxton published a non-binding legal opinion that blanket orders to prevent infection were impermissible, Education Commissioner Mike Morath and Gov. Greg Abbott walked back that guidance.

The Texas Education Agency still allows districts up to eight weeks of virtual learning at the beginning of the school year to transition to in-person instruction, but districts may risk the loss of state funding if they decide to remain virtual longer on the advice of local health authorities.

Two of San Antonio’s smaller West Side and South Side districts, Edgewood and South San, have decided to use the maximum eight weeks allowed by the state, but Northside, North East and SAISD, which serve more than half of the county’s children, have so far only committed to virtual learning through Labor Day.

Local teacher unions want schools to remain closed until Bexar County’s coronavirus positivity rate is under 5% and the number of new cases has declined for at least two weeks — two metrics recommended by SA Metro Health. Bexar County’s positivity rate is currently 15%.

Camille Phillips can be reached at Camille@tpr.org or on Twitter at @cmpcamille.

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This story has been updated to correct a typo and provide further detail about SAISD's plans.